If there's anything we've learned about the WNBA in the last three years, it's that as difficult as it is to win one title repeating can be even more difficult.
Since the Los Angeles Sparks won back to back championships in the 2001 and 2002 seasons and returned to the WNBA Finals in 2003, most champions haven't even made a second consecutive trip. So talk of a Minnesota Lynx dynasty was not necessarily hyperbolic: not only did they make it back, but they had also gone 54-14 over the course of two regular seasons, featured three Olympians, and began the season by winning a WNBA record 10 consecutive games. The question, for most reasonable people, was not whether they'd win the 2012 WNBA title but how many they might be able to string together after being the first in a decade to repeat as champions.
The Lynx dominated the preseason discussion to the point that the only intrigue entering the season appeared to be who would come in second. Despite a three-game losing streak heading into the Olympic break, it still seemed evident that the only thing to stop the Lynx would be the Lynx themselves. 21-point halftime deficit against the Atlanta Dream at home? No problem - take a couple of extra periods to come back and win. Struggle on the boards in the Western Conference playoffs against the Seattle Storm and Los Angeles Sparks? That's ok - find another way to win.
The Lynx had a balanced, deep and versatile roster that seemed to be built to win on paper and did little to suggest they wouldn't finish the task by repeating as champions.
And it's hard to appreciate just how incredible a feat the Indiana Fever's 3-1 win over the Minnesota Lynx in the 2012 WNBA Finals was without taking into account the entirety of that narrative.
It's fair to say that with all the (justified) hype about the Lynx that everyone slept on the Indiana Fever this season. While they were clearly a contender to win the conference, the Atlanta Dream entered the season as the two-time defending Eastern Conference champions, the Chicago Sky made a big offseason move that seemed to put them in the conversation, and the Connecticut Sun returned a team that featured eventual 2012 WNBA MVP Tina Charles in the middle. Meanwhile, the Fever did little of note to improve on paper. They moved star small forward Tamika Catchings to the four and struggled to rebound after essentially conceding that going small was their best option. Then they lost their star scorer, Katie Douglas, heading into the Finals.
This was not only the battle of an underdog versus a favorite or a potential dynasty against a team that had failed to win a title in their only attempt but a team with the momentum of a champion's narrative waiting for their coronation against a team that was waiting to become a footnote in history.
What unfolded was absolutely shocking from the opening tip of the WNBA Finals, after which the Fever went on to win Game 1 of the series in Minneapolis. Fever forward Erlana Larkins had a couple of record rebounding performances to keep the Fever competitive in an area of weakness. Fever guard Erin Phillips, who was left off the Australian national team for the 2012 Olympics, continued her hot shooting, ignited by coach Lin Dunn's decision to move her into the starting lineup - along with Larkins - in the first round. Fever guard Shavonte Zellous came up with a career-high 30 points to help the Fever win Game 3. Point guard Briann January, known for her defensive prowess in college but coming off an Eastern Conference Finals series in which turnovers were a problem, bottled up All-WNBA First Team selection Seimone Augustus in Games 3 and 4 to limit the effectiveness of an otherwise potent Minnesota Lynx offense.
At the center of all of that was the play of Tamika Catchings, who might be more respected by her peers for her ability on the court and who she is off of it than any athlete in the nation. Here's a player who played with passion that made her desire for her a first title obvious to anyone watching and yet had to trust her teammates to accomplish all that they did in order to win it.
The Fever's triumph was truly one of team over a group of talented individuals who inexplicably fell apart on their way to finishing off what everyone thought was inevitable. It was support for the idealistic belief that we all hold, that no matter what the expectations, basketball is great because smart play on offense and hard work on defense can in fact trump overwhelming talent. It was a reminder that the expectations of others mean nothing once two teams step on the court and have to bring outcomes to fruition.
In all of its unpredictability and unexpected performances that concluded with a deserving star who deserves more individual accolades than she has gotten being crowned champion on her home court, the Fever's victory is an inspiring reminder of why we love watching sports and why basketball in particular can be such a beautiful game.